50 years after the wonder of Mary Poppins comes this comedy/drama about the film’s origins. Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) goes to Hollywood to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who wants to turn her beloved creation into a movie musical, much to her disgust.
Saving Mr. Banks is very well done, flicking between Travers’ notoriously difficult arguments with Disney and flashbacks to her childhood in Australia to explain where Mary Poppins came from. In an inspired piece of casting, Colin Farrell plays Travers’ father with heartbreaking skill, while Tom Hanks is great as ever playing Walt Disney as a charismatic fellow who’s avuncular like Father Christmas yet powerful like Father Christmas.
This all makes it easy to get swept up in the sugary story, but really it’s too easy. The liberties taken with the truth feel disingenuous, suggesting that Travers loved the finished product and bonded with Disney, while in reality, she never cared for either. And it’s highly unlikely that she ever sung in the rehearsal room.
Travers is portrayed as such a caricature that after a while we know which ideas she’s going to reject before she rejects them, which leaves her Disney sparring partners looking clueless; they present her with one whimsical idea after another, all of which she’s guaranteed to hate.
Then every idea presented to Travers is one that ends up in Mary Poppins, which is odd for a film about all these rejected ideas. This is presumably because the filmmakers thought that audiences want to see the inception of their favourite moments and hear the classic songs, but considering the film is about how picky Travers was – and Emma Thompson has claimed in interviews that Disney bowed to most of these wishes – it seems strange that she ultimately agrees to everything she initially rejects.
For all its rose-tinted revisionism, the film is deeply depressing; a celebration of buying out an artist, making her part with the only thing she cares about against her will because she needs the cash. It’s an odd thing for the Disney company to be proud of, no matter how good their Mary Poppins is.
Despite its great cast and fine execution, this film is an uncomfortable celebration of Disneyfication, and is everything Travers didn’t want Disney to make Mary Poppins; it’s untruthful, saccharine and Disneyfied. Ultimately Saving Mr. Banks is just Disney giving themselves a great big pat on the back.
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